Moses ben Jacob of Coucy

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MOSES BEN JACOB OF COUCY (13th century), French scholar and tosafist. His father Jacob is mentioned a number of times in the printed tosafot (Kid. 43b; et al.). Moses was the maternal grandson of the tosafist *Ḥayyim ha-Kohen and brother-in-law of *Samson of Coucy. His principal teacher was *Judah ben Issac (Sir Leon).

Moses of Coucy is the first example among French Jews of an itinerant preacher, wandering from town to town and from country to country to rouse the masses to draw near to God by the active observance of His precepts. He began his preaching in Spain in 1236, being motivated to do so, according to his own words, by some mystical revelation which he experienced. The nature of this revelation is not clear, although it was possibly connected with the reckoning of the Redemption, a pursuit in which Judah Sir Leon, who designated 1236 for its beginning, also engaged. His sermons excited a massive response and, in his own words, brought about the repentance of "thousands and tens of thousands," especially in respect to observance of the precepts of tefillin, mezuzah, and ẓiẓit, which in that era (as other sources also testify) had grown very lax. He called also for the curbing of sexual relations with gentile women, widespread in Spain at that time, and taught in his sermons a method of repentance close in formula to the spirit of Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, though to a much less severe degree. He stressed the value of Torah study in a regular and orderly manner, and was one of the first to call for greater equity and propriety in economic dealings with the gentile community. Thus Moses checked, at least temporarily, the decline in the observance of the positive precepts of Judaism among the masses and the scholars in Spain, which had resulted from the tendency toward rationalization and to the extravagant allegorization of Scripture caused by the influence of Maimonides' philosophic writings. He later visited other countries (which, he does not specify) and in 1240 was in Paris, where he took part in the well-known disputation on the Talmud with Nicholas *Donin. These activities earned him the name of Moses ha-Darshan, in consequence of which he has sometimes been confused with *Moses ha-Darshan of Narbonne.

Moses of Coucy's reputation rests on his extensive and important work, the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Se-Ma-G; first published before 1480 (Rome?), and subsequently published three times by 1547, in Italy). The work is unique among the prolific rabbinic writing of the period. It includes, in effect, the essence of the Oral Law, arranged in the order of the precepts and divided into two parts: positive precepts and negative precepts. The work is based on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, which is cited word by word on every page. He supplements Maimonides' words with an abundance of sources, from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the Midrashim, as well as from the works of French and German rishonim, which he possessed either in the original or in precis. Moses adapts the language of the Midrashim so closely to the style of Maimonides that one is often under the impression that he has before him an alternative reading of the halakhic Midrash. Although the book follows the arrangement of the precepts, their number and order differ from those of Maimonides, both because Moses did not know Maimonides' Sefer ha-Mitzvot but only the list of precepts in the introduction to the Mishneh Torah, and because at the end of the book he included rabbinic precepts, in keeping with the practical aim he had set himself in compiling it: to instruct the people in the way of the Lord. In pursuit of this aim, he also varied the arrangement of the precepts, separating those applicable in our time from those which are not. The Se-Ma-G marks the penetration of the works of Maimonides (which Moses probably "discovered" during his stay in Spain) into the halakhic world of France. Though Maimonides was known to Moses' teacher, Judah Sir Leon, as well as to *Samson of Sens, they merely quoted him a number of times, whereas Moses made him the basis of his whole project. He seems not to have been unaware of the great paradox in the possibility that it was precisely Maimonides who contributed to the undermining of practical halakhah in the countries under his influence, as a result of his use of allegory in general, and of his having posited reasons for the precepts in particular. Although the period of Moses' activity began only a few years after the first controversy in Europe around the works of Maimonides, he makes no reference whatsoever to it in his work, perhaps feeling that his special relationship to Maimonides disqualified him as an impartial judge in the matter. Among works of French and German scholars frequently used and cited by Moses, sometimes by name and sometimes not, are the tosafot of Samson of Sens, the Sefer ha-Terumah of *Baruch b. Isaac of Worms, and the Sefer Yere'im of *Eliezer b. Samuel of Metz. His practice, in general, is to begin with a scriptural verse touching on the subject, to cite the interpretations of the verse found in the Talmuds and the halakhic Midrashim, to give the relevant talmudic discussions, the words of the commentators and posekim, and a summary of the halakhah – all this with the degree of editing and adaptation of style necessary to give greater fluency to the language, every effort being made to avoid casuistry and prolixity. Moses weaves into his words an abundance of aggadic material, quotations from the sources, or the homiletic creations of his own spirit, all marked by their wholesomeness and simplicity, with love of God and of his fellow man.

The Se-Ma-G won great popularity among scholars and posekim. Many tens of manuscripts of the work have been preserved to the present time, an unusual phenomenon with a book of such great length. It was also one of the first Hebrew books to be printed. It has served as a standard guide to halakhic practice for scholars in all generations, notable among them being *Mordecai b. Hillel, *Meir ha-Kohen, a pupil of *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg, in his Haggahot Maimuniyyot, as well as all the pupils of *Perez of Corbeil. Quotations from it occur in the printed tosafot. Great scholars of all generations have written commentaries to it, among them Isaac *Stein, Joseph *Colon, Elijah *Mizrachi, Solomon *Luria, and Ḥayyim *Benveniste. Joshua *Boaz included the SeMaG with the Shulḥan Arukh and Maimonides' Mishneh Torah among the references given in his Ein Mishpat, an indication of the work's indispensability. The tremendous influence of the book is particularly evidenced by the fact that Isaac of Corbeil, who in his time bore the title "Head of the Yeshivot of France," found it necessary to compile the Sefer Mitzvot Katan, which is completely dependent upon the SeMaG, and to make it compulsory daily learning for every Jew. Perez, and his pupils after him, who wrote glosses and notes to the book of Isaac of Corbeil, all associated themselves in their rulings with the SeMaG, which they continually quoted. This estimate of the Se-Ma-G persisted, among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, until the time of Joseph *Caro's Shulḥan Arukh; and Moses b. Jacob of Coucy is numbered among the great posekim of all generations.

The tosafot of Moses of Coucy to Yoma, first published with the title Tosafot Yeshanim in the Amsterdam (1714–17) edition of the Talmud, have come down to us. He also wrote a commentary on the Torah (known among rishonim as "Peshatei ha-Ram mi-Coucy"), which is much quoted in the Minḥat Yehudah (in Da'at Zekenim, Leghorn, 1783) of Judah b. Eliezer. In the SeMaG (positive precept no. 16) Moses tells of a special prayer he composed for the benefit of those wishing to repent. Two versions of such a prayer attributed to him have lately been published from manuscripts.


E.E. Urbach, in: Zion, 12 (1946/47), 159; Urbach, Tosafot, 384–95 and index; Ch. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 2 (1947), 87–92; Sonne, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… A. Marx (1950), 209–19; Gilat, in: Tarbiz, 28 (1958/59), 54–58.

[Israel Moses Ta-Shema]